A ‘Love’ letter to the Fab Four

Cirque du Soleil juggles new approach to Beatles' classics

LAS VEGAS — One hundred thirty Beatles songs — or at least slivers of them — form the soundtrack to the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, the first Cirque show to start with the music and then develop a story with accompanying visual treats.

And as the first Cirque du Soleil show to feature pre-existing music, “Love,” which starts previews June 2 and opens June 30 with a gala, is Cirque’s attempt to show it can be more than acrobats and balancing acts and that George Martin, the Beatles producer, can collage the Fab Four’s music into something wildly new.

Martin and his son Giles have created a version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” that incorporates John Lennon’s demo, the band’s first take and the final recording along with bits of “All You Need Is Love” and “Piggies” thrown in — a bit of colorizing one might say.

“They used elements that were off the beaten path, and we have taken those, moved them around and made it more interesting,” George Martin says, referring in part to the use of the drums in “Tomorrow Never Knows” under “Within You, Without You.”

The Clash were prescient: Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust. This is no “Lennon,” the Broadway bomb of last season, either.

“Love,” Cirque’s fifth show in Las Vegas, began with a conversation between Beatle George Harrison and Cirque’s founder-CEO Guy Laliberte at a party during the Montreal Grand Prix in 2000. Harrison wanted to do two shows — one of Beatles music and one of his own — with both conveying messages of hope and love and music as a universal language. Laliberte carried on with the idea after Harrison’s death in December 2001; the creation of the show has occurred within the last three years.

And while there are only four Harrison songs sung in the show, Martin notes “that without George’s ideas, especially the ones he brought back from India, this music wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.”

The creative team behind “Love” unveiled portions of the show May 24 at the former Siegfried & Roy Theater, which was gutted and given a $125 million makeover. Part of that includes the installation of 6,305 speakers, nearly a third of which are installed in the back of the hall’s 2,000 seats to allow sound to swirl around the auditorium. For the most part, songs rain down from the speakers installed in the ceiling.

The theater was built surrounding the stage — a first for Vegas, though it’s a style Cirque has long used for its traveling shows. Unlike the last extravaganza, “Ka,” the Cirque folks aren’t making a big deal about the expense: It’s a $25 million show, about what “O” cost. “Only in Vegas,” Laliberte declares, “can you get the investment and the theater design.”

But while the creatives are effusive in their praise of one another’s work and the Beatles in general, in private interviews they seem united in their desire to describe what “Love” is not rather than get specific about what exactly it is.

They all agree “Love” is not, nor was it ever intended to be,a Beatles songbook; a Beatles best of; a rock ‘n’ roll show; an opera; a symphony; a play; a nostalgia piece — or a typical Cirque du Soleil show.

Dominic Champagne, the show’s director, writer and concept creator, seemed suddenly to be more at ease talking about “Love” after he came up with the line, “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll poem.”

The costumes deliver the wow factor rather than acrobatics. The movements witnessed at the preview were delicate, graceful and a pinch surreal. Even though 15 minutes of the show was presented, it was clearly character-driven.

“We evoke without duplicating. We decided to evoke parts of the emotional journey they went on for their eight years of recording. We look at the characters they created and try to answer who is Eleanor Rigby? Who is the Sun King? Who is the Walrus?

“As our fifth show, we had to find a different approach. Also, we have to please the Beatles fans. They’re the first ones coming to see this.”

And Beatles fans should rest easy knowing that the first people consulted were Paul and Ringo. After creating a short list of about 35 songs, Champagne and the Martins asked Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon (Yoko Ono) and George Harrison (Olivia Harrison) for song ideas, which led to more meetings, phone calls, emails and teleconferences about songs and reconstructions.

“Some of those conversations were supportive; some were challenging. But there was lots of trust and that scared me a bit,” Champagne notes. “I was given a lot of rope, and I hope I haven’t hung myself.”

While some were reluctant to describe the show’s narrative — “but nothing like ‘Phantom’,” notes Laliberte — Martin outlined it. “Love” starts with their final perf on a London rooftop, playing “Get Back” and segues to a war-torn Britain. The four boys go through the songs that made up the Hollywood Bowl concert set list, and then the show settles in with characters from songs and album covers, such as Sgt. Pepper.

At the preview perf, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was exactly that — a girl on a trapeze with sprinkling lights swinging over a rocking horse person. “Octopus’ Garden,” which began with the orchestration of “Good Night” and then featured Starr’s voice slowed down and unaccompanied, was also spot-on as it took advantage of the stage in a sunken mode.

On the other end of the spectrum, tap dancers wearing rainboots and minidresses start their bit unaccompanied as the drums of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” marry the horn and then piano of “Lady Madonna.” “Madonna” plays nearly in full as the guitar solo from “Hey Bulldog” helps close out the tune.

“The brief I had,” George Martin says, “was to create a soundscape that should be virtually uninterrupted, like the end of ‘Abbey Road.’ I could use any sound recorded by the Beatles. My admiration for them has grown after getting within the core of the Beatles. The music remains familiar yet different — and audacious.”

McCartneysaw a rehearsal in Las Vegas a little less than three weeks ago .

George Martin said McCartney applauded the experimentation and encouraged his former producer to go even further out.

But he recoiled in horror, Martin says, “when I played ‘Hey Jude’ with a reggae beat at the beginning. I was only joking.”

Starr, who has been planning and rehearsing for a summer tour, has plans to see the show soon.

“I was really surprised how positive and supportive Yoko was of the show,” Champagne says. “You have to transmit hope and love, she said, as a tribute to George (Harrison).”

George and Giles Martin, who share the title of music director, are in the process of creating a show album that Apple plans to release, most likely in November. While George estimates it will be about 90% of the show, he also is keen on noting that it has to work musically for anyone who hasn’t seen “Love.”

“We can take it to the record company,” Giles adds, cracking a smile, “and promise them, every song is smash.”

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